Announcing: Gift Guides for Italophiles

Italy gift guides
Looking for the perfect gift for someone who loves Italy? Starting tomorrow, I'm going to be running a series of guides on Italy gift ideas. These guides include both gifts that you can order to be shipped abroad, and gifts that you can procure if you're living here in Italy. So I'm hoping both Italophiles here in Italy, and elsewhere, will find them helpful!

(Update:Don't miss the 2014 Italy gift guides, including the best gifts for Italy-bound travelers and the finest Italian gifts on the web!).

The calendar:

Monday, November 12: Gifts for foodies, cooks, and coffee-lovers

Thursday, November 15: Gifts with a conscience: Spotlight on Libera Terra

Sunday, November 18: Gift ideas for culture vultures and history nerds

Wednesday, November 21: Gifts with a conscience: Spotlight on Italian artisans—whose work can be shipped abroad

Tuesday, November 26: Gift ideas for those traveling to Italy

Friday, November 30: A roundup of my favorite shops here in Rome for finding one-of-a-kind gifts 

Exhaustive? Yes. Helpful? I hope so!

 

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Trenitalia or Italo Treno? The Verdict on Italy’s High-Speed Trains

Trying to decide on Trenitalia or Italo Treno? Been there. And having sampled both, I’ve definitely got an opinion.

I’ve always had a thing for Italy’s trains. No, not so much the regional trains, although they get the job done (and are cheap!). But the fast trains. Ask me how I want to get to Milan or Venice from Rome, and I’ve always replied with the Frecciarossa or Frecciabianca. (Even the names are pretty!).

But being loyal to Italy’s national rail service, at least when it comes to the Frecciarossa and Frecciabianca, gets expensive. If you’re booking last minute, like I tend to, you can expect to pay €85 and up for a 3 or 3.5-hour trip from Rome to Milan. (Book far enough in advance to take advantage of an Economy or Super Economy ticket, rather than the Base price that’s usually all that’s left by the time I get there, and that can drop to about €60).

So when I first heard about the new Italo Treno — nicknamed the “Ferrari train,” thanks to the fact that the company is headed by the president of Ferrari — I knew I had to try it. Italy’s first high-speed private rail service, with stops at major cities including Naples, Florence, Rome, Milan, and Venice, it was competitively priced. And it looked pretty luxurious.

Trenitalia or Italo Treno?
Even the “Smart” (basic”) car of the Italo Treno looks pretty, well, smart

I felt a little guilty, at first, even thinking of booking a ticket with Italo Treno. After all, Italy’s national rail service had been pretty good to me.

But Italo Treno was new, and shiny, and I kept hearing about it in the news. So when it first launched, back in the spring, I tried to book a ticket.

And was rejected.

In fact, for every date I tried, no seats were left. Italo Treno just wasn’t available.

I tried not to take it personally: After all, Italo Treno was in high demand. I was just one more person in line, eager to try it out. And, for its first few months, Italo Treno had only a handful of operating lines; it was stretched too thin.

A few months later, I tried again. This time, I had more success.

Last week, I booked a Rome-to-Milan trip the night before I had to leave; I had no problem getting a ticket in the “Smart,” or economy, class car. The price: €61. I returned a week later, with the same deal.

Trenitalia or Italo Treno
The interior of the “Smart,” or economy, car

The Frecciarossa and Italo Treno trains have a lot in common. But from my very first impression, even just over the internet, Italo Treno had the edge. For one thing, booking my seat seemed way easier. Trenitalia’s website is notoriously tough to navigate, even (or especially) in the “English” option. Italo Treno’s site is much simpler — although, to be fair, much of that is because there are way fewer destination options (with only 11 stations to stop at, a drop-down list makes sense… not so on the Trenitalia site!).

Both Trenitalia and Italo Treno let you get your ticket texted to your phone, for free — no need to print anything out or collect a ticket at the station.

Still, I knew it was easy to represent yourself in a positive light online. The real test would be what Italo Treno was like in person.

The first thing that struck me? How friendly Italo Treno was, and how caring. An Italo Treno worker, dressed in a crisp uniform, stood at the one corner where it might have been possible to get confused (was the platform left, or right?), simply to assure people they were headed in the right direction. And on the platform itself, every carriage had one or two young, professional-looking workers standing outside the doors, all in their uniforms, all smiling. 

As well as warm and welcoming, the train was beautiful, spotless, and stylish.  The windows were noticeably bigger than those on the Trenitalia trains, making the space feel airier and less crampled. (I didn’t notice much more seatroom, but both trips, I did have an empty seat next to me, which was just as nice).

High speed trains in Italy
The beautiful scenery on the Rome to Milan route — better appreciated with bigger windows!

When we got going, though, the most surprising perk was the noise reduction. Because the engine system is distributed throughout the whole train, and because the engines are on the undercarriage, the train is much quieter than others I’ve experienced. Instead of arriving at my destination exhausted, my brain tired of dealing with all that nonstop, ambient noise, I felt energetic and relaxed. That, alone, made the switch worth it.

I also loved having Wi-Fi, which worked beautifully… except in tunnels, despite Italo Treno’s promise that it would. (Each carriage has its own satellite antenna). Still during each 3-hour ride, I only noticed the internet stop working four or five times, and it went back on within a minute or two. I forgave Italo Treno for that one oversight. (It’s worth noting that the Frecciarossa also now has internet, but I haven’t tried it out yet).

So. Yes. Italo Treno, I think I’m in love. And I can’t wait until we get to meet again.

(Sorry, Frecciarossa. You’ll always be the reason why I first fell in love with trains in Italy. And I still think your name is prettier).

You can book your trip with Italo Treno here or (I haven’t forgotten you, Trenitalia!) your trip on a high-speed Frecciarossa or Frecciabianca here. For either one, look in the upper right-hand corner to change the language to English. And, yes, you can use a U.S. credit card to book your ticket on either site.

Also: how should I schedule my sightseeing in Rome?, a fun tour of Rome’s hidden ancient spots and what to do in Rome when you’ve done… everything.

Liked this post? You’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Updated, Expanded and New for 2017, which includes many more tips and tricks like these in more than 200 information-packed — but never overwhelming! — pages. It’s available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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The Best Lakes Near Rome

Lago di Bracciano, one of the loveliest lakes near Rome

Lago Bracciano, one of the loveliest lakes near Rome

When it comes to day trips from Rome, the area's lakes provide some of the best places for peace, quiet, and gorgeous scenery. 

Yes, most visitors to Rome head to the seaside when they're craving some water. But especially this time of year, when the beaches are getting downright chilly, the lakes can be a better option. That's particularly true as the trees start to change color. As any autumn-lover knows, the only thing more beautiful than a brightly-colored forest is a brightly-colored forest… that's reflected in a lake's still water.

In the summer, too, the lakes make a great escape from the city—and one that's less crowded, as most Italians tend to head to the seaside instead. (That said? If you're going on a summer weekend, consider taking the train instead of driving. Parking at the lakes' most popular stops is limited, and the traffic going into, and out of, Rome can add an hour or more to your commute).

Year-round, here are my three favorite lakes near Rome!

Lake Bracciano

Lago di bracciano

Lake Bracciano in autumn

The second-largest lake in Lazio, Bracciano's also one of the area's cleanest: It's a water reservoir for Rome, so no motorboats are allowed, while runoff from the lake's towns is strictly controlled. That means that you can both swim in, and eat seafood from, the lake without having to worry about nasty bacteria or chemicals. (Sadly, this isn't the norm for many of Italy's lakes; Lake Lugano, Como, and Garda are all polluted to the degree that swimming isn't recommended).

Partly thanks to the motorboat ban, watersports like windsurfing and sailing are especially popular. And several of the lake's towns are well worth exploring; Bracciano, the (unsurprisingly) most famous, is especially adorable, with medieval, cobblestoned streets and a gorgeous view of the lake.

Oh, and a castle.

Lake Bracciano

Odescalchi Castle, at Lake Bracciano

If the castle sounds, or looks, familiar, by the way, it might just be because this is where Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were first linked, legally if not eternally, as TomKat. Although, honestly, I really hope that's not why you recognize it.

Getting there: By car, Bracciano is about a 45-minute drive (without traffice) north of Rome. By train, you can leave from the Roma-Ostiense station (a 5-minute walk from the Piramide stop on metro line B); the train takes about an hour to Bracciano and costs about 3 euros.

Lake Martignano

Lake Martignano, near Bracciano

Lago di Martignano

Nestled next to Lake Bracciano, Martignano looks like a runt on the map. But what comes with the tiny size is complete tranquility. Partly because it's tougher to get to: Even though it's right next to Lake Bracciano, there's no train station here, so you need a car.

If you can make the trip, though, it's worth it. Just make sure you head to Agriturismo il Castoro, where, for a small fee, you can enjoy use of the grass beach and (here's the real seller) the hammocks. On especially nice days, get there before noon so you can stake one out!

The "green beach" at Lake Martignano

The "green beach" at Lake Martignano

Another plus: The agriturismo has a cheap-and-simple restaurant (think grilled meats, vegetables, and beer), and you can eat overlooking the lake. Don't want to leave? You can camp overnight.

Getting there: Your only option is by car; it's about a 45-minute drive from Rome (depending on traffic). Agriturismo il Castoro is located at Via di Polline, 343, Anguillara Sabazia.

Lake Albano 

Lake Albano

Water sports abound on Lake Albano

In the opposite direction of Rome from Bracciano and Martignano, Lake Albano is located in the Castelli Romani. Motorboats aren't allowed here, either, making the lake especially amenable to windsurfing and sailing—and to renting a pedalo, one of those funny little boats that you can pedal around the lake in yourself.

Be warned that there's not much beach to speak of; there's a little slice of grass next to the lake, but getting into the water itself involves a balancing act of avoiding falling into the mud. Renting a pedalo, taking it out to the middle of the lake, and jumping in from there is always a better option.

When you get your fill of the lake, walk the 15 or so minutes uphill to Castel Gandolfo. The Pope's residence in the summer, this medieval village, while tiny, has some perks, like gorgeous views of the lake and a couple of good restaurants. A friend of mine spent every weekend this summer at the lake taking windsurfing lessons introduced me to Arte e Vino, a cute, cozy cantina with the best lunch deal in town: plate after plate of antipasti for (if my memory serves me correctly… both times I've been there, I walked out in a serious food daze) 12 euros. 

Arte e Vino at Castel Gandolfo at Lake Albano

Just one of the many plates of antipasti at Arte e Vino…

Getting there: Without traffic, it's about a 35-minute drive south of Rome. By train from Rome's Termini station, it takes 45 minutes and costs just €2.10.

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The History Channel’s “Caligula: 1400 Days of Terror” Premieres in the U.S.

Caligula copy
Rumor has it he made his horse a consul, his palace a brothel, and his sisters his, erm, “girlfriends.” Two thousand years later, the jury’s still out on how crazy Emperor Caligula really was.But one thing’s for certain: He was, and remains, a fascinating character.

That’s why I was thrilled to be a host/”story-teller” for the History Channel’s 2-hour documentary on the Roman emperor, produced by North South Productions. And, having premiered in Australia and New Zealand, the documentary is finally coming out in the U.S.

So mark your calendars: The U.S. premiere date for “Caligula: 1400 Days of Terror” is Tuesday, Oct. 9 at 9pm. Tune in to hear me and other friends in Rome, including Katie Parla and Darius Arya, share the latest theories behind this still-mysterious figure!

Update, Oct. 4: The preview has just been put online! You can get a glimpse of the show here.

Update, Nov. 5: You can now buy the documentary for instant download from Amazon for $2.99; get it here.

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Five Weekend Escapes from Rome, in Pictures

Looking to get out of Rome for a couple of days? Here are five of my favorite weekend escapes!

Siena, Tuscany, a great day trip from Rome
Siena, one of my favorite cities, boasts medieval streets, incredible Renaissance art, graceful palaces, and one of the most incredible churches in Italy. It's a 3-hour train ride from Rome. Check out my other post on Siena, or my day trip itinerary over at Art Trav.

 

Monopoli, Puglia, Italy

Although it takes almost 5 hours to get here on the train from Rome, Monopoli, located in Puglia, has a beautiful beach, lovely streets, and top-notch food. It's also a great place to stay for the weekend to explore Puglia's other gems, like Bari or Polignano a Mare

 

Naples, Italy, a day trip from Rome

Although you could visit Naples in a day trip—on the high-speed train, it's just a little over an hour—the city's really worth at least a weekend. Evocative piazzas and palaces? Check. Some of the most important art in Italy? Check. One of the finest archaeological museums in the world? Check. Incredible food (including pizza), three castles, and the liveliest atmosphere you'll ever experience? Check, check and check. Here's my post on what to see in Naples, here's my weekend guide to where to stay and what to do for the weekend for New York Magazine, and here's my most recent article on why I love the city so much.

 

Ponza, off the coast from Rome

I owe you all a post on Ponza, the gorgeous island just a 2-hour ferry ride from Formia (itself an hour-long drive from Rome). But until then, this picture, of the cliffs on Ponza where Circe was said to have lived and seduced Odysseus, will suffice.

  Perugia, a great day or weekend trip from Rome

Perugia, located 2.5 hours from Rome on the train, is a gem of a city. It's also a great base to spend the weekend exploring Umbria, possibly my favorite region in all of Italy.

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What Do Travel Bloggers Owe the Places That Sustain Them? A Lingering Question from TBEX and TBU

TBEX conference at Keystone, Colorado

A quiet moment at TBEX 2012

This past weekend, I attended the Travel Blog Exchange Conference (TBEX, in bloggers’ lingo), in Keystone, Colorado. And I was blown away—by the organization, by the location (yay, mountains!), by the events, and by the other attendees. I’ll definitely be back.

But, long after the rooms had emptied of their 800 conference-goers, one question lingered in my mind.

We spent the weekend talking about influence. In particular, we spoke about how to grow that influence (seminars included “SEO for Beginners,” “How to Create a Social Media Strategy,” “Email Marketing with Your Newsletter”). And how to turn it into cash (“Monetize Like You Mean It,” “How to Work with Brands,” “Creating a Business with Your Blog”). 

There was little talk about what else we should do with that influence. Other than, of course, getting ridiculously rich off blogging being able to scrape together enough pennies to live (and, hopefully, travel).

This isn’t unique to TBEX. I visited Travel Bloggers Unite (TBU) in Umbria this spring, and the focus was the same: Social influence. Networking. Monetization. All good stuff—but, I think, missing an important part of the puzzle.

Especially as travel bloggers get more and more influential, what we each owe the locations, and people, we write about seems integral to the discussion. I would have loved, for example, some talk of what ethical responsibilities (if any!) come with publicizing “undiscovered” towns or regions. Or with giving further publicity to sites already unhealthily flooded with tourists. Or with how to decide when to write about a big, multinational hotel chain or an independent B&B. Or a chain store or a local artisan

 

Venice on the Ponte Rialto

Venice’s Ponte Rialto in August

 

And no, it’s not that each, or any, of us are a Rick Steves, able to single-handedly turn a corner of the world like the Cinque Terre from undiscovered gem to tourist Disneyland destination, where the tiny streets are full of souvenir shops and mediocre restaurants and where tourism’s consequences are damaging the area’s natural resources in concrete, even lethal, ways. (The floods of October 2011, for example, were devastating in large part because as tourism has replaced agriculture, the Cinque Terre’s terraced hills haven’t been maintained—meaning little resistance to the rains).

But, as a community, we do have influence. The same way the travel journalism community does. And that influence is growing.

With that influence, I think, comes responsibility. And it would be fantastic if discussion about this responsibility could be a part of our conversations from the get-go, while the community is still relatively new.

Of course, some of us already think about this, a lot. Some bloggers write about green travel and agritourism; many others make a point to write about “immersion travel,” which seems far more beneficial to local communities, at least to me, than slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am resort stays.

Peacocks at a local farm in Tuscany

Hanging out with peacocks at a cheese farm in Tuscany

 

Most notably of all, Passports with Purpose—a fantastic nonprofit started by bloggers Beth Whitman of “Wanderlust and Lipstick,” Debbie Dubrow of “Delicious Baby,” Michelle Duffy of “Wander Mom,” and Pam Mandel of “Nerd’s Eye View”—had a huge presence at the conference (and the smarts to lure people to their booth with cupcakes!). Their concept is great: Get the blogging community to rally behind one carefully-chosen project each year. This year, Passports with Purpose is raising $100,000 to fund the construction of five wells in Haiti. I’ll be participating, so keep an eye out on the site for how you can win great, Italy-related prizes.

But I think the conversation about responsibility, and ethics, and what we owe to the communities that we’re so lucky to travel to, live in, and write about, can—and should—extend beyond one (excellent!) cause a year.

Bloggers, travelers, readers: What do you think? Let me know in the comments!

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My Ode to Bella Napoli, for Mariner Magazine

Naples Italy best explored on foot!

It's no secret that I'm a sucker for Naples. In the spring/summer 2012 issue of Mariner, the official magazine of the Holland-America cruise line, you can find my ode to exploring this chaotic, crazy, but sempre bellissima southern city on foot… plus a piece on Naples' pizza by Lorenzo Carcaterra and some gorgeous photos. And yes, you can also read it online.

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The Week of Culture in Rome, for the NY Times

At the Palazzo Massimo during the Week of Culture

If you haven’t done so already, get thee to one of Italy’s many state-run museums, archaeological sites, and palaces, most of which are free right now for the Settimana della Cultura! Here in Rome, that means you can get into prize-worthy sites like the Palazzo Massimo (with its ancient Roman frescoes and other goodies, above) for free. The event ends April 22. For more, check out my piece on the Week of Culture over at the New York Times.

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Need Advice on Your Trip to Rome and Italy? Now Available for One-on-One Chats

Rome travel

I love sharing my insider's tips for traveling to Rome and Italy, from the most fascinating sites to most pernicious scams, best day trips to top ways to save money. And, as well as publishing on my blog, I have been—and will always—be happy to respond to readers' emails with even more tips and advice.

But I can sometimes get behind on those emails. And, at the same time, I know that many readers would much rather just sit down and talk with me, not have to type everything out. Besides: If you talk as fast as I do (hello, East Coast upbringing), you can cover a lot more territory in an hour chatting than an hour writing.

So, starting now, I'm offering one-on-one consulting sessions on travel to Rome and Italy. (You can book now; sessions themselves will start on March 20). For sessions that take place between March 20 and April 20, I'm providing a 40% discount on my normal price.

It's your chance to pick my brain on, well, everything Italy-related. For example, I can tell you:

  • where to eat: why you should never count on Tripadvisor or a guidebook to find the best and most authentic spots, what websites I use to find new restaurants in Italy, my favorite restaurants in Rome and elsewhere, and general rules of thumb for how to avoid touristy spots
  • where to stay: why some of Italy's "best hotels" don't really merit their €250-and-up price tags, how to find the best-value accommodation in Italy, my favorite places to stay in Rome and elsewhere, how to use and what to know about apartment rental websites, and the best-kept secret in rewarding budget accommodation in Italy
  • how to get off the beaten path: the most rewarding sites in Rome, and the most rewarding towns and regions in Italy, that hardly anyone knows about
  • how not to get ripped off: when to be on your guard in Italy, how to tell if your restaurant bill is right or not, and how to deal with awkward situations where you think you've been overcharged
  • how to get around: why you shouldn't necessarily rent a car and drive around Italy, what the alternatives are, and the cheapest way to get around Rome on public transport (no, it's not the RomaPass!)

Intrigued? Find out more information here.

And don't worry: I'm still writing, still blogging, and still answering those emails. Just think of this as just one more trip-planning option in your arsenal!

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No (Fiscal) Receipt? No Party: How Tourists Can Help the Campaign Against Tax Evasion in Italy

Tax evasion is a huge problem in Italy. By knowing how important a fiscal receipt is, and what it looks like, here’s how tourists can help.

Even delicious food might not be legal in Italy
Everyone knows that tax evasion is one of the biggest issues facing Italy's economy. But very few tourists to Italy know that they have the power to do something about it.

And should.

That's because tax evasion in Italy doesn't just happen in accountants' offices behind closed doors. It happens every time a product, meal, or coffee is sold. Why? Because Italian stores and restaurants have a book of "fiscal receipts" issued by the government—and legally, they need to give the customer a fiscal receipt (ricevuta fiscale) for each interaction. Each time they use a ricevuta fiscale, the government knows about the purchase… and the interaction is taxed.

Without issuing that ricevuta fiscale, it's like the interaction never happened. And, therefore, it's untaxed.

And so, guess what: You hardly ever see fiscal receipts in Italy. Especially if you're a tourist.

Restaurants and stores know that tourists have no idea what a fiscal receipt looks like versus a non-fiscal receipt. They also know that tourists have a tendency to think it's "cute" when their waiter does something like, say, scribble the total on the tablecloth or a napkin. Guess what? That's not a fiscal receipt. And that's not cute. It means that your meal isn't being taxed. It's going right into the owner's pockets, tax-free.

This has been a huge issue for, well, ages. It's something everyone knows, but—until recently—that nobody publicizes. It's part of a system that many Italians mistakenly believe benefits everyone: After all, it obviously helps owners, in the short term, especially since taxes are so high in Italy. And as a customer? If you're a regular, you know that, if you don't ask for a fiscal receipt, your local restaurant or drycleaner or whatever will give you a discount. Everybody wins.

Except, of course, that they don't.

In 2009 alone, Italians evaded about 120 billion euros in taxes—that's almost four times the value of Monti's new austerity budget. If Italy were as strict in collecting taxes as the U.K. and the U.S. over the last 40 years, economists have calculated, then the country's national debt would be 80 percent of GDP, not 120 percent.

Doesn't the government know about this, you ask? Aren't they doing anything? Well, sure. There's something called the Guardia di Finanza in Italy—think the IRS with guns—whose sole job is to make sure that fiscal interactions are done legally. Occasionally, they'll get a tip on a restaurant or shop. The problem? Because Italy is what it is, the establishment usually gets a tip-off that they're coming. And so, surprise! When the Guardia check the receipts they're issuing, they're suddenly fiscal.

With Monti's new government, though, things seem to be improving. There have just been several big stings that have shown just how bad tax evasion was—and not just in the much-maligned south, but in the supposedly-so-civilized north, too. In December, 80 tax inspectors swooped in on the tony ski town of Cortina d'Ampezzo in Italy's Dolomites. In the wake of the inspection, declared profits were suddenly up 400 percent from the previous season (gee whiz, how'd that happen?). In mid-January in Rome, an inspection of 292 businesses in one day found that 52% were in violation. And last weekend, the Guardia di Finanza targeted Milan. In the days after their blitz, reported income went up by 44 percent.

So. Well and good. But government can only do so much.

Consumers have to help, too.

Italians have started calling for boycotts among establishments that aren't issuing fiscal receipts. One of the leaders of the pack is Rome's own Puntarella Rossa, who has launched the campaign "No scontrino, no party" (no receipt, no party), encouraging diners to ask for fiscal receipts every time they eat—or to boycott the restaurant. Even more effectively, the restaurants in violation are being named and shamed. Citizens took the campaign seriously this week in Bari, for example, sending photos of the receipts they received, with the restaurants' names, to both the Guardia and to La Repubblica's blog on Bari.

It's a fantastic idea, and one that needs to spread. But it can be expanded to tourists, too. Because, with as many non-Italian diners and customers as there are in Rome and the rest of Italy, everyone needs to be a part of this for it to succeed.

So, folks: When you're dining in Italy, always ask for a "ricevuta fiscale." Don't accept hand-scribbled scraps of paper as receipts, and don't accept a receipt that says, at the top, "NON FISCALE" (not fiscal). Unless, that is, you don't mind supporting Italy's tax evasion—and the huge issues it's causing for not only Italy's economy, but the worldwide economy, too.

You could even take it a step further: Snap a photo of the illegal receipt and email it, with the restaurant's name, to puntarellarossa@hotmail.it.

Need help figuring out what is and what isn't a fiscal receipt? Check out Walks of Italy's blog post on how not to get ripped off at Italian restaurants, which includes a helpful section, with photos, on what fiscal and non-fiscal receipts look like.

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